In the year 2032, exactly two months after President Makari heard clearly from God that Abuja should bomb Washington on the day of the blood moon, I heard the knock. Bekky was sleeping on my lap and I think she heard the knock before I did. She was already at the edge of the sofa, her eyes, two large saucers, her lips, a badly written ‘O’. Those lips always got me and I wanted to push my breast in her mouth. She liked that, she called it impromptu harassment. She would suck at my nipple and clasp her long fingers around my arse.
The knock came again, this time sharp, brittle and hard on my chest. Mama was sitting on that single chair by the window, not flinching, her face chiseled out of stone. That moment, I knew I shouldn’t have told her.
“Why?” I asked her. She just stared above my head, above my question. I wanted to ask why she had to call the Soja Allah and not her friend who was supposed to get us the train tickets to Ghana. Instead, I focused on how much I looked like her, how much of her long hair I had … How much of her dark skin colour … How much we had shared for twenty-three years.
“You need a cure Hajarat …” Her thin fingers clamped on the edges of her seat. “Root Camp is for your own good.”
The door crashed open and they spilled in. Twelve Soja Allah – their blue uniforms giving a sad hue to the dark room. “Salam Alekum, Salam Alekum!”
Bekky dashed to the door but two of the men grabbed her mid stride and pushed her to the floor. She fighting and screaming, they pushing and shouting Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! I felt sorry for her, hating myself for not listening to her, for thinking that my mother was different from hers, that she would understand and help us escape. Her scream clutched my intestines, turning them round and round in a tight knot. My knees buckled but strong arms held me and pushed me to the floor. A sharp needle pierced through my neck. Bekky’s scream now sounded like a dull drum and Mama was now a fiery ghost. I think she was saying ‘I love you Hajarat’ but I was not sure as I was any longer in the room.
“Stand up! Idiot! Nyanch banger! Toto licker! Up on your feet!” The voice sounded from somewhere inside my head. Gradually it became real, a male voice. I scrambled to my feet and bumped my head against something.
“Bekky!” I called softly, peering through the darkness. “I’m here!” Her hand found mine and she held me. Her fingers were cold and she was trembling. “Where are we?”
Strong light hit my face. I squinted and held Bekky’s hand tightly. The light left my face and my eyes followed it. We were in the back of a truck and we were not alone. The truck was filled with young boys and girls.
“Oya bigin come out one by one!” The male voice barked again. “One single line! See them! Nyanch banger! Toto licker! Gerrout!’ Bekky came down after me. Her hand found mine again and I held her. A stick hit my hand, making me wince in pain. I quickly let go of Bekky’s hand.
“Dirty girl!” The voice barked. “You still wan lick toto for Root Camp? Oya forward marsh!”
How many were we? Fifty? A hundred? I didn’t really know, but we all marched for a long time, through tall shadows of caricature trees hugging the dark night. Once in a while, the male voice hit someone on the head with his stick and shouted, “why you dey look me? Why you dey look me? You wan fuck my nyanch? You wan fuck my nyanch?”
We came to a high-fenced building with a mighty blue gate and bright lights. There were blue uniforms everywhere.
“Straight to the gate! Straight to the gate!”
Root Camp comprised two tall white warehouses with little windows high up in the sky. We were huddled between the two buildings, trying to melt into one another, trying to get away from the Soja Allah who were moving around us, ogling us, weighing us with their eyes, touching our breasts, squeezing our buttocks. Bekky was seven girls behind me. Was she limping on her left leg?
A tall woman walked briskly from one of the buildings towards us. She was so tall that her uniform hung on her like a question mark. Her fair face reminded me of onions and she had an oily smile. The men quickly stood to attention.
“Welcome to Root Camp, God’s healing Project!” she said huskily. “I am Aunty Caro, spiritual head. All the men please go to the right and all the women to the left.”
“Una no dey hear? Toto lickers to the left, nyanch bangers to the right!” That now familiar voice barked. Aunty Caro glanced at him, her smile not wavering.
We quickly made two lines. The male line was shorter than the female line.
“All the males follow this man and all the females, follow me.” She turned round and headed back towards the building from whence she had come. A blue uniform opened the metal door and we all went in. It closed with a loud clang behind our backs. The building was in darkness and a light came on.
“All of you will sleep here.” Aunty Caro’s oily smile became wider. “This is the last night you shall spend together for the next six months. This night is called silent night because whatever you do, God will not be watching you.” She turned around and disappeared with the light.
Through the darkness, we began to search each other out, creating pockets of worlds within the walls. I found Bekky and she held me tightly.
“It’s going to be alright.” I stroked her corn ridge.
Someone was kissing someone in the darkness, a noisy, slippery, sloppiness.
“Are we really sick?” Bekky’s whispered question scratched my silent mind.
Are we really sick? It was a painful question, one I had never thought about. The freshness of it bled down my heart, trailing the crevices of my mind for answers, answers that were not really there. Are we really sick?
Bekky fell asleep, curled in my arms. Capsules of snores rose from different corners. The kissing was still going on, the slippery sloppiness accentuated by gentle moans.
I did not know how many minutes I’d closed my eyes for before the scream tore through the night. It came again, a loud soul-rendering wail. Everyone must have heard it too because the snores were gone, kisses stopped.
“What is that?” Bekky asked. Her fear visible in her question. She was sitting up now.
It was the scream of a woman and it was coming from somewhere inside her, from somewhere under her bile, somewhere in the nest of her life. How old was she? Twenty? Forty? Can one tell age through pain? Does pain have an age?
“It will stop soon. Try not to think about it,” I said. But it did not stop, it kept on and on, torturing our senses, tearing through our souls until it became a part of the night, a block in the wall…a thought in our minds. By the time I found sleep, the scream was in my dream and this time, it was Aunty Caro screaming in my ears through her oily smile.
“Get up! Get up!”
Morning had come unnoticed. It came with three guards, Aunty Caro and her oily smile. The morning light lent a little moisture to her onion face. There was a pile of white clothes on the floor.
Aunty Caro’s voice was a husky blue. “The world out there belongs to God’s servant, President Makari. But Root Camp belongs to me. After God, it is President Makari, then me, in that order. Your parents don’t know where you are so if you want to get back to them, you must cooperate with me. Is that alright?”
“Yes Aunty Caro,” we chorused.
“What is happening to you is evil. For a woman to have feelings for another woman is evil. For a man to have feelings for another man is evil, but God will heal you. There were others here before you and they have been healed and gone home. God will heal all of you!”
“There was a scream last night …” I said though it was meant to be a question.
‘The scream … It is coming from those undergoing the spiritual therapy. It is the only music you’ll hear in Root Camp, so get used to it.’ She stared at me, a spark in her eyes. I turned away. I knew what that spark meant.
“Each of you will be allotted a room. Please get into these clothes and enjoy your stay at Root Camp.” As she left, she threw a glance at me. Her oily smile was beginning to make me feel queasy.
My room was a smaller version of where we slept last night, nothing except for an empty bucket. The odour of urine was masked with Izal. I went to the corner of the room, away from the bucket and sat down. As I examined my new white overalls, my door opened. A Soja Allah pulled me up by my arm and pushed me out of the room. Still holding my arm, he dragged me to a door at the end of the hall. He knocked, shoved me into a room and closed the door behind me. The room was furnished with a red bed and a red rug.
Aunty Caro stood in a corner of the room, smiling. “So this is the intelligent girl that asked a question?” She was close to me now, her hot breath fanning my face. I took a step backwards and was against the door. She smelled like a newly washed cat. Her eyes undressed me, her onion face overwhelmed me.
‘Intelligent and beautiful,’ she whispered into my ear.
‘You’re mine. I chose you.’
Then she kissed me. She kissed like an angry bat. I was dazed, not from the kiss but from the fact that we were in Root Camp, the house of God and this was Aunty Caro our healer.
She peeled off her uniform and stood before me, naked. Her breasts looked like two deflated egos.
“Suck my breasts.” She threw her head back, eyes closed.
“Harder.” She let out a little moan.
“Harder, you bitch!” My hands were numb with pain but she kept urging me to squeeze. I was sweating now and the pain was surging through my brain.
“Squeeze harder, bastard!” she shouted.
She gave me a sharp slap, cutting my sentence. “I say squeeze!” Her eyes were animated and the oily smile had melted into molten desire.
And I squeezed, crying now. The more I cried, the more she moaned until I crashed on the bed in painful exhaustion. “Please!” I cried.
She was on me, tearing at my overalls. Her head went between my thighs. Her tongue felt like a slimy snake darting in, oozing venom. As the snake probed deeper, I thought of Bekky, of what she was doing, of whether she was still limping on one leg. She came back the following night. And every other night. The cycle became familiar; she would come in, satisfy herself, flop into a thunderous snore and by first dawn, she would rap on the door thrice and be gone, leaving me scratched and broken. I began to dread the nights, the sound of her footsteps, her onion face, her oily smile, her touch … What kept me sane was that scream.
I selfishly longed for it. It was better than Aunty Caro’s moan. I noticed it was not just one scream. There were many of them, from different girls, each one with its own octave…each one with its own story. I could tell when a scream was repeating a cycle, when a scream died. I envied them, those screamers. At least they could scream. I longed to be a part of that scream too, to scream my heart out and stop myself from falling into darkness.
She noticed I was dying silently and I think she was genuinely concerned. “You can ask anything and I’ll grant it,” she said one morning after she had woken up and was putting on her uniform.
“I want to see my friend.” It tumbled out of my mouth.
Her oily smile slipped a little but it was back again.
“Bekky?” My eyes opened wide.
She smiled. “You’re surprised? It is my duty to know about my patients.” She looked at me. “Tonight.” And she was gone.
The thought of seeing Bekky after four months overwhelmed me. Had she grown lean? Was she eating at all? That night, I took my bath and waited on the bed, wearing the gown Aunty Caro had bought for me. For the first time in four months, I unstrapped my desire from the window where I had hung it and put it on.
At night, the door opened and she was there, a little frail, a little smaller.
She held me close. Sniffing my neck, letting out a soft sigh. I missed her so much, her lips, her eyes, her hands …
“You are living better than the rest of us,” she said, when we sat on the bed.
“Aunty Caro …”
“I know … We all know … We hear it every night.” She stared at me. “I was angry at first but I understand now.”
I wanted to say I was sorry but I was looking at her instead, thinking of how thin she had become, how distant her eyes were …
“She told me I have not gone for therapy because of you … Thank you.” She quickly stood up and was out of her overalls. Bekky was gaunt and her fair skin had become white.
“Stop staring and come here. We have this night alone.” My gown slipped down my legs. A cold sadness hung somewhere inside my soul. Have we finally lost each other?
When her mouth found mine, I realised this was what I wanted … Who I wanted. The tension between us melted with the kiss and we were moaning, squeezing, climbing higher and higher … Then the door opened and they were upon us, blue uniforms shouting Innalillahi! in horror. We quickly disengaged, screaming in fear as they dragged us up. Aunty Caro stood in the doorway, smiling her oily smile.
“Have you ever seen what makes those girls scream?” She asked me, her oily smile glistening. “You will come and watch.”
They dragged Bekky along the corridor. She was screaming and calling on me to help her. I ran after Aunty Caro, begging, crying but she just kept smiling her oily smile. The therapy room had a single six-spring bed and the Soja Allah threw Bekky onto it. Eight men crowded the room and began to remove their clothes. Bekky struggled, thrashing her legs in the air and screaming in fear. Two blue uniforms held her legs and spread them wide.
The first man thrust into her, a long, vengeful thrust. I had never heard such screams before, loud animal screams that were tearing into the night, wrenching my brain apart. I was crying and begging, lunging towards Bekky, but powerless against the hands holding me. Aunty Caro kept smiling. When the sixth man was halfway, Bekky passed out. But they continued.
Becky came to and started screaming again, a cow-like scream that seemed to ooze from the pores of her skin. After an eternity, the men left and another eight entered. I threw up. By the time they had finished, Bekky was lifeless.
They buried her that night in a fenced-out yard in Root Camp, among thousands of other graves. That same night, Aunty Caro came to me.
“I don’t share, you should know that,” she said, still smiling. As her snake went in and out of my thighs, I thought about all those graves at Root Camp, all those people who have ‘been healed and gone home.’ Did they wear white hand gloves? I thought all dead people wore white hand gloves so they could become angels in heaven. My father wore white hand gloves when he was buried. Bekky did not wear any.
Aunty Caro lay face down on the bed snoring louder than ever. I watched her back rising and falling and I made up my mind. This is the night I must kill her. I had thought about it every night, how I was going to do it, what can kill her faster than sixteen penises.
I stood up and put on her uniform. It was a little tight on the bust but it fitted. I rapped thrice on the door and it opened. I walked down the corridor, past open gates, past saluting blue uniforms saying, Allah ya taimake Makari!
Outside, I paused to breathe in the fresh night air and stared up at the sky. The blood moon was up. The sign President Makari was waiting for. Everyone was chanting Allah ya taimake Makari.
I ran through the forest, away from Root Camp, from the chanting, from Aunty Caro … Mama. To somewhere? Anywhere? Nowhere? I didn’t know. I just kept running.
It will be a while before the blood moon goes down. President Makari will direct his nuclear missile at Washington, his face to us … And nothing will ever be the same.
In 2007, Paul Ugbede attended the Royal Court International Residency Programme for emerging Playwrights in London, United Kingdom. He also attended other creative writing programmes: British Council New Writing in Drama programme (2007-2008), Chimamanda Adichie/Fidelity Bank Creative writing Workshop (2008), BBC Radio Trust writing for the Radio Workshop (2010) and the Writivism Short Story writing workshop (2014). His works have appeared in the British Council Anthology of new plays, Writivism 2014 anthology and wosa online. He is the author of ‘Mr Chairman Sir!’ a play and Director of International Centre for Playwriting Development in Africa and resides in Lagos, Nigeria.Follow @JaladaAfrica